The Rev. Cleophus Smith gets choked up when he recalls the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last sermon.
The 75-year-old sanitation worker remembers the contrast on that day five decades ago between the weather outside the historic church and the future King was painting with his sermon inside.
“It was just raining real hard that particular night that he made that last ‘Mountaintop’ speech at Mason Temple,” Smith said of the civil rights leader’s April 3, 1968, sermon at the Church of God in Christ headquarters on the day before he was assassinated. “From the speech he made, we had hope that there was going to be a brighter day ahead.”
Fifty years later, as the world’s eyes turn again toward Memphis, people of faith who are passionate about racial and economic justice are recalling what was and wondering what yet could be. Historic sites across downtown Memphis are getting an influx of visitors who want to see the sites where King preached and died.
Many want to see where 1,300 black sanitation workers protested, because that’s what brought King to their city. And some groups that worked together in the ’60s — faith and union leaders — are joining forces again to seek better working conditions for the nation’s laborers.
Smith sits at the intersection of all of that — hopping on and off a truck he drives five days a week to collect garbage, even as he spends much of the rest of his time as an associate minister of his Baptist congregation.
The tall lean man, dressed in a brown jacket and tie — and a hat he bought at a thrift store — rattled off street names that he’d come to know along sanitation routes.
He is one of two surviving sanitation workers who were involved in the two-month Memphis strike and remain on the job.
To him, the continuing struggle for better conditions for sanitation workers is a spiritual one.
“We are fighting for the betterment of mankind, if I might put it that way,” Smith said, in his gentle Southern drawl, during an interview at the headquarters of Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.